The Trump Administration is Leaving a Deep State Behind
President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the government from within are on track to continue well beyond when his tenure ends at noon on January 20. As his actions have shown since he announced his candidacy, which have been amplified since he lost the 2020 election to President-elect Joe Biden, and culminated in a literal assault on the U.S. Capitol and Congress, Donald Trump is here to burn everything down.
Over the past year, and with renewed urgency since November, administration officials have been working overtime to install political appointees in career positions where they will be much more difficult to fire and are expected to actively hinder the Biden administration in particular and the work of government in general. The hiring of Michael Ellis as general counsel of the National Security Agency, pushed through by an Acting Defense Secretary on Sunday, was not an exception but rather one result in a concerted effort that includes specious hiring such as that of Ellis as well as “burrowing” at USAID and elsewhere. After years of blaming a figment of imagination for his many failings, Donald Trump is leaving behind a deep state made in his own image.
The morning of January 6th, before the seditious assault on our democracy, The Washington Post reported on the Trump administration’s “burrowing,” or the conversion of political appointees soon to be replaced into entrenched career civil service positions from which it will be difficult to remove them. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must clear many such “conversions,” as they are called, and rejected five such conversions in 2020, but approved twenty-one. It is not at all clear how many conversions have been left to the first three weeks of January, nor how many appointments, such as that of Mr. Ellis, are not subject to OPM oversight.
It is also not clear that OPM has oversight in the case of USAID, where Foreign Policy reports the administration is attempting to install five political appointees into career positions. The positions were initially competitive, drawing “scores of applications,” but they have been reclassified as non-competitive and held open for months as current political appointees seek to hire Trump ideologues to the positions in a process that does not consider merit or experience and rests squarely on political connection and “loyalty” to Trump and Trumpism.
The hiring of Michael Ellis and the positions at USAID are only two examples of what has been reported as a months-long effort headed by Johnny McEntee, the 30-year-old head of personnel in the Trump White House (previously fired by then Chief of Staff John Kelly in 2018 over compromising gambling habits). McEntee was rehired in early 2020, after the impeachment, to root out anyone not fully loyal to Trump, and to burrow Trump loyalists into the fabric of the U.S. Government.
Burrowing is not the same as filling political appointee positions, which typically expire at the end of an administration, or even appointing justices, where Congress has oversight. It is not even the same as appointing unqualified political hacks to the Defense Business Board, which may be reconfigured by the Biden administration. In the case of the Trump administration, burrowing is an act of rebellion against oversight and due diligence, as well as an act of sabotage – not against the Biden administration, but against the U.S. government. At USAID, funds provided by Congress to hire full-time civil servants to respond to the pandemic were filled by hand-picked ideologues who will not be required to leave their positions – and who are not working to end the pandemic.
General Nakasone delayed for more than two months before Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller forced the hire of Michael Ellis as lead counsel at the NSA. Acting USAID Deputy Administrator, John Barsa, is similarly trying to reach noon on Wednesday without hiring the five political appointees to USAID positions. Future OPM’s and news reporting will reveal the vast extent of this effort – though we will likely never know all of the civil servants protecting the work and dignity of the government they serve from this abuse of power. Trump may yet be banned from ever again running for federal office, and even convicted of crimes. He never found the deep state he constantly blamed to cover his repeated failings, but he leaves behind one of his own creation.